I was hesitant when I heard about Rothbury. Isn’t that the festival the Dead‘s playing this year? Where you…camp? On a ranch? Near the woods? With a shit-ton of tripping Dead Heads? Seriously?
Yes to all of the above. I’m not a camper, never really liked the Dead, entered and exited the jam band scene quickly when younger (Phish), and I still had more fun at Rothbury than I’ve had at any non-camping festival.
Why? It largely comes down to freedom. We may, technically, live in a free society and do mostly as we please, but of course there are the norms of society to consider, along with our own self-imposed behaviors that we use to “fit in.” This is why there’s nothing like being in the midst of huge crowds of people all simultaneously freaking out in one way or another. You can pretty much do whatever you want, it’s a level of freedom that is punctuated by the population of craziness going on around you. It’s a chance to let your freak flag fly; it is empowering to be immersed in a community that celebrates weirdness instead of disdaining it.
This theme of freedom came to mind while celebrating the Fourth of July on the third day of the festival. I initially thought it was kind of lame and unpatriotic to hold the festival over the holiday weekend. Now that I’ve attended, I’ve come around to realizing that Rothbury is a great celebration of freedom; poignant especially after all the assaults our collective freedom has been taking of late. The festival also tends to the important responsibilities that come with freedom by advancing an active environmental agenda. I’m sure the political and lifestyle overtones reach only a certain level of impact with the attendees, but the high level of effort they put into offsetting and reducing the environmental aspects of the festival was cool to see.
Beyond the subculture aspects, there’s this truth of the matter: large festivals are awesome for music fans. You can see a good number of artists perform in a very compacted amount of time. As we get older, time management equations definitely come in to play: instead of spending one evening out to two or three bands, you see 20+ over the course of 3 and a half days. Now, Rothbury got its justifiable reputation for catering to the jam-band scene because of the quality of its headliners they put together: The Dead, String Cheese Incident, etc. brought the folks who love the scene from all over the country together in western Michigan for the weekend. But this was what I was afraid of going in: would my low level of appreciation for this music scene hamper my experience?
Hell, no! The organizers were certainly aware that jam bands are not everybody’s cup of tea, and designed what I came to consider the non-jam-band “track” with savvy. They seemed to have an excellent pulse on who to bring in and when to put them on, and where. Following is an account of the awesomeness that was my musical experience at Rothbury.
After getting in nice and early Thursday, we settled in to the tent city and made our way to the festival area in the early evening to see Keller Williams. Talking with some of the scenesters over the course of the weekend, I found the tone in which they referred to “Keller” a little strange, almost like he was the cute little brother of the scene, or something…maybe, the appetizer before the main course; he did, after all, kick off the festival. Listening to his stuff, you clearly hear a Michael Hedges influence. You could call it “New Age” acoustic, at least the Hedges stuff, but Keller generally plays very fast, rhythmically driven, syncopated, solo acoustic. He can also get fancy and record himself playing any of the instruments set up around the stage, and loop it over the course of the rest of the song, thereby building a multi-instrument song (or song segment). It’s probably easier to understand this way. I left right when he was starting to bring in a full band, so that almost certainly changed the dynamic in a way I might have enjoyed.
The next two acts brought me to a revelation of sorts about what kinds of hip-hop are good live. It’s no secret that it’s a lot easier to get into live hip-hop when you know the recorded pieces being recreated live; that’s a given. Beyond that, for me anyway, it’s always been a mixed bag, seeing a live hip-hop show…but now I think I know at least part of what works, because I saw these two extremes on display at this point, back-to-back.
Lyrics Born is an Asian American rapper out of San Francisco. I had heard of him tangentially before seeing him here, but never had heard his stuff. Well, the thing that jumped out about the Lyrics Born performance was his band: they were TIGHT. They had the maximal groove thing going on, and while you couldn’t hear the lyrics of Lyrics Born for the most part, his flow was rhythmic and the groove was SOLID.
Compare that with the act which followed, the Cool Kids (youtube), who ask in the opener to their album The Bake Sale: “Did you know I made this beat with my mouth and a bell?” They’ve got the barest of back beats going on for most of their stuff, so you can really hear them do their smoothly-cadenced rap. The groove is easy-going and enveloping. It was cool to pick up this perspective on live hip-hop from this quality (and accidental, the Cool Kids were a late replacement for Kid Cudi) juxtaposition of styles.
Wrapping up my Thursday night was the Cold War Kids, who are sort of the anti-jam-band. Their grooves are all over the place; the drummer never seems to play on the beat and the song structures are unpredictable or maybe complicated, not lending the listener to dancing. They’re purposely off-kilter, which is kind of rough for some people. Perhaps because of all this, they led with their catchiest stuff to get folks into it, and it worked, folks seemed to stay into it. I got their sophomore album recently, and I found it to be every bit as good as their first…they strike me as a victim of the Internet hype cycle that’s been fucking shit up lately. Don’t believe the hype – Loyalty to Loyalty is an album very worthy of ownership, especially if you liked Robbers & Cowards.
Friday started with Ann Arbor’s the Macpodz. They JAMMED a great set of music; Latin American, funk, rock, soul, jazz…lots of ingredients in the stew; definitely some get-down music. What’s with the excellent fusion/world music/rock coming out of Ann Arbor recently? First Nomo, then these guys…
Man Man (youtube) was ferocious, feral, fearless, and fantastic. Talk about your mind-fuck band being thrown into the mix. Not all of the non-jam-band-track groups were ones I particularly appreciated, like I’d never go see Man Man, because their stuff is really kind of fucked. Someone would have to give me a ticket. But to be able to check them out for a half-hour in the festival was great; it was the perfect amount of Man Man for my Friday. They also convinced me that I need to go back and revisit that CD of theirs that I picked up way back when…maybe I’m the one who’s fucked?!? Probably… Does the war paint speak to you?
Martin Sexton (youtube) was there solo, no band, which disappointed me at first. Keller Williams is probably the better guitarist, but Sexton has the better songwriting skills and the better voice. His voice is phenomenal, all the more impressive live. He was also perfect for the sunny skies and daytime vibe that can turn off so many bar-rockers. I definitely recommend his latest album, Seeds, a full-band affair.
People were generally stoked for the Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley & Nas combo, who’ve got an album coming out soon (youtube). During the solo Nas segment at the beginning, I picked up what might have been the line for Rothbury (and for a good chunk of non-Rothbury people, as well): “Life’s a bitch and then you die; that’s why we get high. Cause you never know when you’re gonna go!” After Jr Gong came on, the musical synergy was definitely there, hip-hop and reggae are indeed two great tastes that taste great together! I was sad that I had to leave the show early.
However, leaving early meant that I got to catch a good chuck of Soulive (youtube), one of my favorite groups that might fit into the jam-band classification. They’ve got solid soul-jazz-funk roots and always lay down a stellar groove. They’re a great band to dance to. Some day I’m going to get out to see them at a dedicated show, but that’s the great thing about a good festival – there’s so much going on that you can’t do everything. I had to miss some of Marley & Nas to see Soulive, an embarrassment of riches!
Speaking of, the list of bands that I had to miss that I wanted to see was long, and arduous choices had to be made. It’s part of the downside of festivals that are this large – you can’t do it all. What it tends to mean is that you can be sure that you’ll see some fabulous performances, but you can also be sure that you missed some great stuff.
Next came the String Cheese Incident, one of two bands deemed crucial enough to the Rothbury audience that there were no bands playing at the same time on any other stage – for FOUR HOURS. Seriously, it was a little ridiculous. I’d done my due diligence and bought their latest album well before the festival weekend, but it never really clicked with me, and after an hour or so of listening on Friday night, my feelings hadn’t changed. Meh. I don’t understand what the big deal is with this band – and every jam-band scenester I talked to this weekend was absolutely stoked to see them. To each their own…
This did, however, lend some time to explore one of the absolutely brilliant fucking things about Rothbury – the Sherwood Forest. It’s a fairly large wooded area between the two main sets of festival stages, that was turned into a freak-out wonderland for the Rothbury festival. It’s hard to communicate what was going on in there that was so special, but here were some of the contributors: massive light displays, hanging mobiles, art installations, mazes, hammocks, performance art, gongs, and freaks. You can’t discount the freaks…there were people tripping balls out throughout the forest, and you know what? I was kinda jealous! It was maybe the perfect spot to test the theory: if you free your mind, will your ass follow? My bet’s on yes.
And that was part of the excellence of this festival being held on the massive beauty that is the Double JJ Ranch in western Michigan: there’s stuff to do if the music doesn’t move you for any period of time. You can swim in the lake. You can play four-square. (Really. Four-square). You can visit some of the organizations or merchants lining the Epicenter (the festival entry area). You can get some grub that wildly exceeded my personal expectations. I would hazard to posit that no matter what kind of food you liked, you would find something to make you happy. I can’t believe how well I ate. You can sip some fairly kickin’ Sangria and blaze in the sun. You can hit up the picnic tables for some back support. You can spread out a blanket, lie on the ground, and just feel the music. There was free Ben & Jerry’s for good portions of the weekend. Free Ben and Jerry’s: I don’t believe it gets any better than that, right? You could even take a few cuts at the batting cage provided by MLB or test drive a Prius. (Memo to Toyota: if you’re letting people test drive the Prius at Rothbury, then I hope you have a good insurance policy). It was an absolute smorgasbord of interaction, entertainment and good vibes. It was occasionally overwhelming in its awesomeness.
Early July is a beautiful time of the year in Michigan – past the rainy season, and often without the extreme heat that August brings. I must have heard from at least 3 different groups of people just this weekend (in addition to a few before) who said “I’m never going back to Bonnaroo – it was just too hot!” Even Rothbury 2008 was said to be hotter than this year’s. One of the things that made it so good this year was that the weather was perfect. In the 70s during most of the days (might have touched 80 for a bit on Sunday), maybe the 50s at night.
Anyway, the next day my only goal was to catch Son Volt at 2:30, so there was a fair amount of time to just kick around. I happened upon a set of four large, stand-mounted, handmade gongs, inside the square of which is a reclining chair you sit in. You lean back, relax, and the trained gong operators vibrate the gongs all around you. It was the quickest I have ever slipped into a deeply meditative state. It was immensely cool. Kind of made me want to join the group that traveled around doing it just so I could have it done every morning. They could be a cult; I don’t give a shit…just give me my gong. I hope they come back next year…with more gongs. It was well worth the half-hour wait. On a related note, yoga happens every morning inside the festival grounds, but morning was well past my motivation level.
Rothbury doesn’t appear to organize every activity on the grounds, but what they seem to do is to make sure that all needs and wants are taken care of on the festival grounds, then anarchize the campground. I mean, it looked like anyone who wanted to sell anything was allowed to along the main “streets” of the campground, and that was kind of cool, when you’re used to day-festivals being super-tight with their vendors, space, etc. Of course, I suppose that’s one of the benefits of having a campground – you can pretty much leave that area to itself and focus on the festival grounds experience.
I can’t recommend Rothbury enough. Come out next year for a stellar time with an awesome subculture and some great tunes…and woods. Did I mention the woods?
Glorious Noise coverage of the third and fourth days of Rothbury was published previously: Rothbury 2009.
All photos by Alan M. Paterson. See more here.